Gau-Algesheim and the Seligmans: My Great-great-grandfather’s Birthplace and What I Learned

Coat of arms of Gau-Algesheim

Coat of arms of Gau-Algesheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From several documents and historical references, I know that Bernard Seligman, my great-great-grandfather, and his brothers Adolph and Sigmund were born in a small town close to the Rhine River called Gau-Algesheim in what was then the Hesse Darmstadt region of Germany. Today it is located in the Mainz-Bingen district in the Rheinland-Pfalz state in Germany.   Gau-Algesheim is about 15 miles southwest of Mainz and 40 miles southwest of Frankfort, Germany.  Its population in 2012 was under seven thousand people, and it is less than five miles square in area.[1]   From the photographs posted on the town’s official website, it appears to be a very charming and scenic location.  There are wineries nearby, and tourism appears to be an important source of revenue for the town.[2]



What was Gau-Algesheim like almost 200 years ago when my ancestors were living there?  How long had my Seligman ancestors been there, and were there any family members who remained behind after Bernard and his brothers left? How long had there been Jews living in Gau-Algesheim, and are there any left today? These were the questions that interested me the most about my great-great-grandfather’s birthplace.

There is a book about the history of Jews in Gau-Algesheim written by Ludwig Hellriegel in 1986, Die Geschichte der Gau-Algesheimer Juden, but unfortunately there is no copy available online, and the closest hard copy is in the New York Public Library.  I tried to borrow it through my university’s interlibrary loan program, but was it was not available for lending.  Thus, I’ve had to piece together bits of information from Wikipedia,, the Gau-Algesheim website, and to get some answers to my questions, relying on Google Translate in order to read the sources written in German.  What follows is a very brief skeletal history of Gau-Algesheim overall and in particular of the history of Jewish life there based on these limited secondary sources.

Gau-Algesheim has ancient roots.  There is evidence of graves dating back as far as 1800 BCE, and evidence of a settlement during Roman times as well.  In the 700s a church and a monastery were established.  Gau-Algesheim was part of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, and during that time was under the control of various different officials and jurisdictions within the Empire and often the subject of disputes and battles for control.  See  It was part of Napoleon’s empire until 1812, and then eventually became part of the nation state of Germany in the mid-19th century.


Gau-Algesheim. Rathaus am Marktplatz.

Gau-Algesheim. Rathaus am Marktplatz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Its Jewish history dates back to at least the 14th century.  By the 14th century, the town had developed into a commercial center.  Many merchants and artisans lived in the town, including herring merchants, blacksmiths, bakers, barbers, coopers, tailors, and shopkeepers.  The monasteries owned a lot of the land, and there was also a fairly large class of nobility.  By 1334, there must have been a Jewish community in Gau-Algesheim because in that year a head tax was imposed upon the Jewish residents.  According to Wikipedia, Jews were required to pay this additional tax because they were considered the property of the crown and under its protection.[3] There was also a Jewish cemetery in existence during the 14th century.  However, this community must have been a very small minority, and the Jews were certainly considered outsiders by the Catholic majority.  In 1348 there was a flu pandemic in the region, and Jews were accused of poisoning the water, such accusations then leading to pogroms across the region.

Gau-Algesheim. Langgasse.

Gau-Algesheim. Langgasse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My sources do not reveal anything about Jewish life in Gau-Algesheim between 1400 and 1800, but the population in 1790 was reportedly only nineteen (it’s not clear whether this refers to people or households, but I assume it refers to total people).  In 1808 there were three Jewish families, and in 1819 only six Jewish families.  In 1857, the Jewish population was fifty people, and the Jewish population peaked in Gau-Algesheim in 1880 when it reached eighty people or 2.6% of the total population of the town, according to the alemannia-judaica website.  (JewishGen puts the 1880 population at only 66.[4])  According to alemannia-judaica, a synagogue is not mentioned as being in the town until 1838. It was described as very old and in poor condition in 1850 and was rebuilt in 1861 and renovated again in 1873-1874.  There was also a mikveh and a religious school, although it seems that there was a joint school with the nearby town of Bingen. (Bingen, by comparison, had 542 Jews in 1880, amounting to almost eight percent of its overall population; it was only six miles away from Gau-Algesheim. By further comparison, Mainz had a Jewish population of about 3,000 in 1900, and Frankfurt had almost 12,000 Jews in 1900.)[5]

The tiny size of the Jewish population in Gau-Algesheim in the 19th century in the years when my ancestors were living there surprised me.  How did my family end up there?  And why did they leave? I don’t know the answers to the first question at all and can only speculate about the second and will write more generally about it in a later post.   But what I want to focus on for now is what happened to the Jewish community in Gau-Algesheim after my great-great-grandfather Bernard and his brothers left in the middle of the 19th century.

It appears that my ancestors were not the only Jews to leave Gau-Algesheim.  By 1900, the Jewish population had declined to 27 people; in 1931 there were only 31 Jewish residents.  Presumably many of these Jews had immigrated to another country, and many may have moved to the larger cities in Germany.  In the Reichstag elections of 1933, the Nazi Party only received 26.6% of the vote in Gau-Algesheim with the Center Party carrying almost half the vote.  Unfortunately, that did not reflect the overall vote in Germany, and the Nazi Party took control of the country, soon dissolving the Reichstag and all other political parties, ultimately leading to World War II and the Holocaust.  Whatever Jews were left in Gau-Algesheim before World War II either left the town or were killed by the Nazis.

There is no Jewish community there today.  The Jewish cemetery remains, however, although it was desecrated during the Holocaust and has been vandalized several times since then.  In 2006, Walter Nathan, whose father was born in Gau-Algesheim, visited the cemetery and was so disturbed by the condition of the cemetery that he decided to work to have it restored and to create a memorial to those who were buried there and also to those who had been killed in the Holocaust.  On November 9, 2008, on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the memorial was dedicated by Nathan and many members of his extended family.[6]  Included in the headstones remaining in the cemetery was this one for a woman named Rosa Gebmann Seligmann who was born in 1853 and died in 1899 and married someone who was probably my relative.

With the help of two members of the Tracing the Tribe Facebook group, I can provide this translation of the German and the Hebrew on the headstone.  The German says, “Here rests in peace my unforgettable wife and good mother Rosa Seligman, nee Bergman, born May 11, 1854, died Feb.1 8, 1899. Deeply missed by her husband and children.  The Hebrew at the bottom says, “Here is buried Mrs. Roza wife of Alexander Seligman Died (on the) holy Shabbos 8(th day of) Adar 5659 by the small count. May her soul be bound in the bonds of life.”

There is also a plaque in town commemorating the Jewish citizens of Gau-Algesheim who were killed by the Nazis. It says, as translated by Google Translate, “The city of Gau-Algesheim commemorates their Jewish fellow citizens who were victims of Nazi violence and domination.”


There is another plaque hanging on the wall of the cemetery listing the Jews born in Gau-Algesheim who were murdered during the Holocaust according to Memorial Book: Victims of the Persecution of Jews under the National Socialist Tyranny in Germany 1933 – 1945.  It says, “Standing in this sacred place our hearts turn to the memory of those who fell victim to the violence of the Nazis, and we vow to keep their memory alive. In solemn testimony of the unbroken faith that connects us with them, their names are referred to in profound awe. We say the Kaddish—the prayer for the dead— and remember the terrible tragedy of the Jewish people.”

Among the names listed on this second plaque were these individuals: Bettina Elisabeth Arnfeld born Seligmann (1875), Johanna Bielefeld born Seligmann (1881), Anna Goldmann born Seligmann (1889), and Moritz Seligmann (1881),.[7]

On the site, I found two more Seligmanns born in Gau-Algesheim: Jacob Seligmann, born April 8, 1869, who became a resident of Neunkirche and emigrated in 1935 to Luxembourg, and Laura Seligmann Winter, born June 9, 1870, who was also a resident of Neunkirche and immigrated to Luxembourg in 1935. [8]

These may have been my relatives.  Given the small size of the Jewish community that lived in Gau-Algesheim, I have to assume that at least some if not all of those named Seligmann were related to my great-great-grandfather Bernard and were thus related to me.  When I saw those names, I was stunned.   Because I have not found where my Brotman relatives lived in Galicia, because I have not found any Goldschlagers from Iasi who were killed in the Holocaust, because my Cohen relatives left Europe long before Hitler was even born, I had not ever before seen the names of possible relatives who were victims of the Holocaust.  But Bettina, Johanna, Anna, Moritz, Jacob, and Laura Seligmann—they were likely the nieces and nephew or the cousins of Bernard, Sigmund, Adolph and James Seligman.  They were likely my family.

Now I need to see what I can learn about them and what happened to them.  I need to be sure that their names are not forgotten.  This is what I know so far from the Yad Vashem names database:

Bettina Elizabeth Seligmann Arnfeld, born March 17, 1875, was residing in Muelheim Ruhr, Dusseldorf, Rhine Province, and was deported to Theresienstadt on July 21, 1942, and she died there on January 23, 1943.



Johanna Seligmann Bielefeld, born March 13, 1881, was living in Mainz during the war.  She died in Auschwitz.



Anna Seligmann Goldmann, born November 30, 1889, was living in Halle der Saale, Merseburg, Saxony Province.  She was deported from there May 30, 1942.  Her husband Hugo Goldmann, born in 1885, and their daughter Ruth Sara, born in 1924, were also deported that same day.  They were all murdered.



Moritz Seligmann, born in 1881, was not listed in the Yad Vashem database.  On the memorial plaque placed at the cemetery in Gau-Algesheim the only notation after his name is Verschollen, which means “missing, lost without a trace,” according to one source.



Jacob Seligmann, despite escaping Germany in 1935 and moving to Luxemburg, did not escape the Nazis.  He was killed in 1941 in Luxemburg, according to the Yad Vashem website.

Laura Seligmann Winter, who may have been Jacob’s sister, was a widow; on August 28, 1940, she also was killed in Luxemburg.



I will continue to look for more records that will tell something about the lives of these people and their families so that they can be remembered not only for how they died but also for how they lived.


“Dachau never again” by Forrest R. Whitesides – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –














[1] See



[2] See



[3] See



[4] See



[5] See



[6] See








[8] [8]



Why I Have Been Quiet about Israel

I have never been afraid to express my opinion.  I welcome reasonable discussions and debate about almost anything—food, movies, books, baseball, politics, world affairs, religion, you name it.  I have strong feelings about almost anything and everything, and I usually am not at all hesitant to say what I am thinking.  I like to think that I listen to what others have to say and that I try and be informed about as much as I can before formulating my own opinion.  My values have not changed much at all in the course of my life, so I know my starting point based on those values, but my mind has been changed many times on many issues by listening and reading what others have to say.

But this time I am lost.  I am Jewish, I am proud to be Jewish, and I feel a strong emotional tie to Israel and Jewish people everywhere.  I’ve only visited Israel once, back in 1997, and it left an indelible mark upon me.  I felt a connection historically and spiritually to the place.  I cried when we left in a way that was far different from the sadness I always feel when a trip or vacation ends.  Israel felt like home to me in a way I never expected.  From my research I now know I have family in Israel.  I have friends in Israel. I know how important Israel is to the past, the present, and the future of the Jewish people.

I am also a lifelong progressive liberal (and not ashamed at all of that word) who argued and protested against every US war during my lifetime—from Vietnam starting in 1965 when I was a teenager up through Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2002.  I know that some wars were so-called just wars; defeating Hitler and others who have tried to commit genocide is justified and necessary.  Dropping an atomic bomb on Japan, however, is not something I would have agreed with, if I’d been born at the time.  I don’t agree with capital punishment, even when the convicted person has committed a heinous crime.  I just don’t see killing as a way of accomplishing anything unless and until there is no choice in the name of self-defense or defense of others.

So I have read the news these last few weeks with my stomach churning, my heart breaking, and my brain torn from one side to the other.  Almost everything I have read is filled with one-sided rhetoric. There is no reason for me to recap the arguments; you’ve heard them all before.  People who are defending Israel point me to pro-Israel sources; people who are anti-Israel point me to anti-Israel sources.  I read the New York Times every day, hoping it is more objective than other sources.  People who are pro-Israel say that the Times is biased against Israel; people who are anti-Israel say the Times is biased in favor of Israel.

There are only a few actual facts: Hamas wants to destroy Israel—it says so in its charter; there is a blockade around Gaza that makes escape for those who live there almost impossible and life there absolutely miserable; Hamas is building tunnels and accumulating weapons and shooting rockets to reach its goal of destroying Israel; Israel is fighting back with stronger and bigger weapons and with a defense system that has resulted in many more Palestinian deaths than Hamas has been able to inflict on Israel; Hamas refuses to agree to a ceasefire; Israel refuses to stop building new settlements; Hamas continues to shoot rockets, knowing that its own people will be killed in greater numbers; Israel knows that it cannot avoid killing them when it shoots its rockets at Gaza.  Neither side can win unless it obliterates the other side, in which case neither side has won.

Meanwhile, people are dying on both sides, no one feels safe, and there is hate being spewed by both sides.  And across the world, there are people protesting, saying things that I’ve not heard said so publicly and proudly in my lifetime: “Death to the Jews, Kill the Jews.”  In one town in France, shop windows were smashed.  Immediately I thought of Kristallnacht.

So why have I remained quiet?   Being quiet did not help the Jews in the 1930s. But why express my feelings when they only provoke more rhetoric?  Why be accused of being either a self-hating Jew for having sympathy for the people in Gaza or of being a Jewish imperialist/Zionist for understanding why Israel feels a need to use force to stop Hamas from trying to kill the Israeli people and their country? The dialogue is pointless.  No one really listens.  They just argue.  They just throw around words of hate.  They just make me feel sick and sad and confused.

I have also remained quiet because I am confused and upset and heart-sick.  I see no hope for any improvement in the situation; I only see things getting worse.  I only see a terrible ending to all this anger and killing and hate, and it makes me despair for my children and my grandchildren, for Jews and for non-Jews, for our world, our planet, our lives.  There is no right, no wrong.  There is just ugliness, blood, violence, and hatred.  There are no words.  I have no words.  I am speechless.  I am silenced.

Please don’t tell me what you think.  Please don’t fill my heart with more hate, with more anger. I’ve heard all the arguments. The rhetoric is all noise to me. Endless Facebook postings prove nothing; people only read what supports their point of view. There is nothing to celebrate. Everyone is wrong; everyone is right. Everyone needs to be quiet, to stop talking, and to start listening to their hearts, hoping with their souls, and thinking with their brains.  If those of us who do not live where the bombs are flying cannot talk to each other with respect and understanding, how is there any hope that there will ever be peace over there or, for that matter, anywhere?

So my silence does not signify indifference or apathy; it signifies confusion and a willingness to listen and think and hope. You cannot listen when you are talking.  You cannot think when you are just spewing rhetoric.  You cannot hope when you are angry.  I am listening.  I am thinking.  I am trying as hard as I can to hope.

Galicia Mon Amour: A Conversation

I just finished watching a video called “Galicia Mon Amour.”  It is a recording of a conversation between Daniel Mendelsohn and Leon Wieseltier.  Mendelsohn’s book, The Lost, which I read a number of years ago, is one of the most moving books I’ve read; in it he recounts his journey to find out what happened to members of his family who had not left Galicia before the Holocaust.  It is beautifully written, well-researched, and deeply tragic.  I read it long before I started doing my own genealogical research, but it likely was one of the sources of inspiration for my journey.[1]

Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish is also excellent, but I have to admit much of it was a bit too scholarly and dry for my taste, except for the parts where he reflects on his own family and experiences.  I admit to skimming a lot of the more academic parts of the book.

At any rate, when I saw a recommendation for the video on the digest I receive daily from Gesher Galicia, I decided to try and make the time to watch the video.  (It’s about two hours long.)  You can find a link to the video here.

In the video Mendelsohn interviews Wieseltier about his recent trip to Galicia.  (The interview takes place in January, 2007; Wieseltier’s trip was in 2006.)  Both Mendelsohn and Wieseltier had family that came from eastern Galicia in what is now Ukraine from towns near the city of Lviv, known by the Jews as Lemberg.  Both had taken trips back to the region to research and visit the places where their relatives had lived.  Although Mendelsohn’s direct ancestors had immigrated to the United States before the Holocaust like ours did, he had many relatives who remained behind about whom he had known very little.[2]  Wieseltier’s parents, on the other hand, were Holocaust survivors and came to the United States after World War II.  All the rest of his family was killed in the Holocaust.

One audience member asked at the end of the interview whether there were differences between those who were grandchildren of immigrants and those who were children of Holocaust survivors.  Were the survivors from the wealthier families who saw no reason to leave in the 19th century and the earlier immigrants from the poorer families who had no reason to stay?  Although Wieseltier dismissed this as an overgeneralization, which I am sure it is, it nevertheless is an interesting sociological question.  Remembering Margoshes’ memoirs and the fact that there were so many wealthy Jews, I thought that it made some sense that only those who had nothing to lose would have taken the risk of leaving the world they knew.  This may suggest that Joseph and Bessie were not among the wealthier segments of the Galician Jewish community.

Wieseltier described his own family as being among the more prosperous, educated and aristocratic clans in their area and confirmed the impression left by Margoshes that the Jewish world in Galicia was very diverse and that there were many who were wealthy, well-educated, and sophisticated.  He described Cracow as the “Jerusalem of the North” and the Galitzianers as the princes of the Jewish world.  Mendelsohn concurred, saying that although there was also a lot of poverty, there was a large bourgeoisie and a large wealthy class.  He said that Emperor Franz Joseph, who was the head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1848 until 1916, was admired and even loved by the Jews for his enlightened leadership and treatment of the Jewish citizens, also described in Margoshes’ memoirs.

One observation that I found particularly interesting was Mendelsohn’s comment that he always thought of Jews as living in tenements until he went to Galicia.   He believed that Jews, wherever they lived, lived urban lives, and he was surprised by how wrong he was when he saw the rural areas where they had lived in Galicia.  He described the countryside as beautiful—with mountain, streams, rivers.  Wieseltier used the word “paradise” to describe it.

A lot of their conversation focused on the reasons to make a trip to Galicia.  Both said quite emphatically that this is not a place to go for typical tourist reasons; for Mendelsohn it was partly to find out what happened there and to visit the places where his family had lived. Wieseltier said he went not only out of grief, but also out of pride. He talked movingly of standing where his mother had once stood and leaving a copy of his book in the empty field as a symbol of Jewish survival.  Both talked about the absence of Jewish life there now and how the Polish people themselves realize how much has been lost by the destruction of the Jews and their culture.  Wieseltier said that you won’t find Jewish life there so you must bring your Judaism with you if you go.

There is also discussion of the Holocaust, of the camps, of anti-Semitism, but overall the theme was more about remembering the world that was there in a realistic and accurate way and cherishing that culture and the people.  Wieseltier himself is quite skeptical of genealogy (“It’s amazing how much you can’t learn from genealogy.”).  Although Mendelsohn obviously values genealogical research highly, he did not really push Wieseltier to elaborate on this point.  I think, however, that Wieseltier was expressing some doubts about all those who, like me, are trying to trace some names and dates to make a connection, perhaps without any purpose or perspective.  He said that our parents and grandparents were ours “by luck,” just as the fact that we have two legs or brown eyes, and that what is more important is who we are ourselves and what we do with our lives.  I think that that is an important perspective for me to remember as I continue to look for our family in Galicia.

[1] We were fortunate enough to hear Mendelsohn read from and talk about the book many years back when it was first published.  That made his story even that much more personal.

[2][2][2] I am sure that that is true for the Brotman family as well, although I do not know specifically of any family members who died in the Holocaust.

A World Apart, part 5: Relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Galicia

My reading this time related largely to the relationships between the Jews and non-Jews in Galicia, socially, politically and otherwise.  Margoshes began this section by claiming that at least in the region where he lived near Radomishla, the Jews were economically and politically often more powerful than most of the non-Jewish population.   I would never have expected that at all; I assumed that the Jews were oppressed politically and economically.  Instead, Margoshes asserted that in area from Rzeslow to Tarnow to Krakow, the peasants lived under the dominance of the Jewish estate holders.  He wrote, “During the period between the 1880s and [World War I], this part of Galicia was a true paradise for Jews in some respects.” (p. 99; emphasis added)

According to Margoshes, in this region, anti-Jewish persecution and acts were unknown, and Jews and gentiles lived peacefully together.  If a peasant struck or even just insulted a Jew, the courts would punish the peasant by placing him in jail for at least two days.  Peasants would tip their hats to Jewish estate-holders when they were driving (oxen or horses, I assume) on the road and when they entered their homes.  (There is no mention of how the peasants treated and were treated by poor Jews, just the wealthier Jews, who in many instances were the employers of these peasants.)

Margoshes explains the political context for this by pointing out that in 1846 there had been a widespread revolt of the peasants against the wealthy Polish lords and landholders and that even forty years later, the politically powerful Polish aristocracy which controlled the government had not forgiven the peasants for the violence, deaths and damages caused by that uprising.  Thus, in a dispute between a peasant and a Jew, the government would generally side with the Jew.

Margoshes also attributed much of the peacefulness of the region to the Austro-Hungarian gendarmes who were responsible for keeping law and order in the Empire as part of the imperial army.  These soldiers lived in the area in barracks and frequently visited the estates to insure that all animals were registered and that everything was being managed according to the requirements of the Empire.

That did not mean that there were no disputes or problems between the peasants and their Jewish employers.  Margoshes described a number of incidents of theft by the peasants who worked at his father-in-law’s estate.  He wrote, “A Jewish estate-holder and his household had to have eyes in the back of their heads in order to make sure that the workers were not stealing from him….” (p. 127).  He also made the offensive generalization that it was part of the “inborn nature” of the peasants to steal: “he had to steal whenever the opportunity presented itself, especially from the Jewish estate-holder.  For a peasant, the smallest stolen article was an asset.”

In one story about the workers at his father-in-law’s estate in Zgursk, moreoever, Margoshes also revealed that the relationships between the Polish peasants who worked on the estate and their Jewish employers were not always quite so amicable.  There were at times hundreds of workers on the estate, and many of them boarded there.  Margoshes himself admits that their living conditions were substandard: “everyone found a place to sleep in one of the three stables atop hay and straw and that was it.  No pillows or sleepwear were provided and…a blanket used to cover horses served as a cover.” (p. 96) The estate did provide three meals a day that Margoshes described as generous.   Margoshes’ mother-in-law and father-in-law were the task masters who oversaw all the work on the estate, and his father-in-law was known to be rather cold and strict.

Margoshes described one time that his father-in-law lost his temper with some of the workers who in his view were not working hard enough and began beating them with a paddle.  In response, these workers and a number of others went on strike and refused to return to the fields. It took an intervention from the mother of the father-in-law to persuade the workers to return to work the next day.  Margoshes described this as if it were a one-time incident, and perhaps it was, but it does reveal that there was some abuse of the peasants by at least this powerful Jew, his own father-in-law.

Thus, although Margoshes initially described the relationship between the gentile peasants and the Jews as peaceful and amicable, these incidents of theft and abusiveness suggest that there was in fact a great deal of resentment and anger among the peasants towards the Jews. Perhaps he was deluding himself when he wrote that it was a “true paradise” for Jews in this region during that time.

According to Margoshes, the wealthy Jews also had good relationships with the wealthy Polish lords and landowners, called pritsim or porits in the singular.  He described his relationship with a neighboring porits  as “very friendly, although from a distance.” (p. 103) They would help each other out with favors, but were not social friends.  Margoshes did not think that this relationship was unusual.  He said that he “never heard of a case in the entire region of a porits who had negative relations with a Jew or where he insulted a Jew or harmed him in any way,” (p. 104) although he did then go on to mention one polits who refused to trade with Jews.

There was also, according to Margoshes, peaceful co-existence between the Catholic priests and the Jewish population.  Although he commented that “[p]riests, especially Catholic priests, cannot ever really be friends of the Jews” because “it is almost against [their]religion to love people of another faith,” (p.111), he reported that nevertheless for the most part there was little conflict between the priests and the Jewish estate holders.  He described a church law that prohibited Catholics from working as servants in Jewish homes, but pointed out that it was rarely enforced since the peasants needed employment and often worked in Jewish homes. Margoshes even developed a friendship with one of the local priests, but he severed that relationship when the priest tried to persuade Margoshes to come and see his church—not to convert, but just to go inside the church.  Obviously, this “friendship” was a superficial one based on necessity, and feelings of distrust and difference outweighed any sense of real connection.  Margoshes made it clear that it would not have been acceptable for him, as a Jew, to be seen in a Catholic church.

By the time I finished reading this section, I realized that Margoshes had had a very unrealistic view of the relationships between the Jews and non-Jews in Galicia during the late 19th century.  First, his viewpoint is entirely based on the experiences of the wealthy Jewish estate-holders.  The non-Jewish peasants may have seemed respectful and accepting of their Jewish employers, but beneath the surface there was likely a great deal of resentment and anger.  The priests and non-Jewish estate-holders also may have been willing to live peacefully side-by-side with the wealthy Jews, but there certainly was not a true acceptance or friendship in these relationships.  The gendarmes may have been keeping the peace, but beneath the surface the Jews were still the outsiders who were not integrated into the gentile world.

Moreover, Margoshes does not at all provide a picture of what life was like for the Jews who were not wealthy estate-holders.  Were their relationships with the peasants, priests, and wealthy Polish landowners as “peaceful”?  Or were they the targets of all the repressed resentment and anger that the gentiles felt towards the wealthy Jews?

It occurred to me after reading these chapters that Margoshes was writing in 1936.  He had no idea what was going to happen in Poland during the Holocaust. I wonder whether his naiveté about how the gentiles felt about the Jews was widespread in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s.  If only they had been more realistic, perhaps more of them would have left sooner.

Which brings me to another question: if things were so great in the 1880s and 1890s for wealthy Jews in Poland, why did Margoshes and so many others, including Joseph and Bessie, leave?

A World Apart, Part 1: Life in Galicia in the late 19th Century

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I ordered a book on what life was like in Galicia in the late 19th century.  The book is A World Apart: A Memoir of Jewish Life in Nineteenth Century Galicia by Joseph Margoshes. (The book was written in Yiddish in 1936, but translated into English in 2010 by Rebecca Margolis and Ira Robinson.)  Margoshes was born in 1866 in Lemberg (Lvov/Lviv), which is now part of Ukraine.  According to the introduction to the book, he was born into a family with a “distinguished rabbinical ancestry” and “received a traditional Jewish education in Bible and Talmud, as well as grounding in the German language and European culture.” (p.vii)  As an adult, he spent several years administering agricultural estates in western Galicia, the region where our family most likely lived.  He emigrated to America at the turn of the century and became a well-known writer for the Yiddish press in New York City.

He wrote A World Apart as a memoir not only of his life, but of the culture and world he left behind.  The book is considered to be an important documentation of what life was like in Galicia during that time period.  As Margoshes himself wrote in his forward to the book, “I have lived in a different generation and under completely different circumstances from my own children and many of my friends and acquaintances.  I thus hope that it might interest them to read the memoirs of my past.” (p.3)

Since the author lived in Galicia and left Galicia during the years that Joseph and Bessie, Abraham, Max, Hyman and Tillie lived in and left Galicia, I hope to be able to get a better picture of what their world was like.  I’ve only read the first thirty-five pages or so, but can already report some sense of that world.  What struck me most about the first segment of the book was its portrayal of a diverse Jewish society.  In my mind I had an image of Fiddler on the Roof where everyone was relatively indifferent to secular education and the secular world and completely immersed in Jewish life.  Margoshes immediately breaks down that image.

In fact, Jewish society in Galicia was not unlike Jewish society in Israel or the US today with a wide range of subgroups with varying degrees of religious observance— from the Hasidim to what we might now call Modern Orthodox to very assimilated or what Margoshes refers to as “German” Jews.  By that he does not mean that they were from Germany, but rather that they had abandoned traditional Hasidic garb, wore modern clothes, did not keep kosher, and spoke German more than Yiddish.  Margoshes family itself had representatives across the spectrum.  His father was descended from a long line of scholarly rabbis and considered themselves “maskils” or members of the Haskalah or Enlightenment Movement, which promoted not only Jewish education but also secular education, much as the Modern Orthodox movement does today in the US.  They were deeply observant, but not cut off from the outside world, unlike the Hasidim who lived much more insular lives and were not interested at all in secular education.  On the other hand, Margoshes’ maternal grandfather was a highly educated cloth merchant who traveled to Vienna for business and raised thirteen children, only two of whom were religious.  His sons were all “Germans,” and his daughters were well-educated and read the German classics.

Margoshes’ mother, however, was one of the two children who were religious, although she was well-educated.  Her first marriage ended when her husband began to dress and act “German-style.”  She then married Margoshes’ father, who was himself a maskil —religious, but not Hasidic.  (Interestingly, Margoshes’ father was a widower whose first wife was his niece, an indication of how liberally families allowed marriage among close relatives, as Joseph and Bessie reputedly were.)

After providing this family background, Margoshes describes events surrounding a major rift in the Galician Jewish society.  His father had originally belonged to an association of educated but religious Jews (maskilim) called the Shomer Yisrael Society.  In the late 1860s, however, his father left the Shomer Yisrael Society because it had become far too assimilationist.  For example, the Society submitted a proposal to the Imperial Ministry in Vienna that would restrict who could be a rabbi recognized by the state to those with more “German” tendencies and that would also impose reforms to the education provided in the Jewish schools, such as requiring German language classes and limiting Talmud classes to those twelve or older.  The Ministry was in favor of these proposals, as it favored modernization of the Jewish society.  Margoshes’ father and others were vehemently opposed and aligned themselves with the Hasidim to fight the proposal.  They formed an opposition group called Machzikei Hadas to organize their opposition to the Shomer Yisrael Society.

Margoshes wrote in detail about the long political battle between these two groups and how the maskilim and Hasidim worked together to fight the assimilationist Shomer Yisrael Society.  He also describes the overall status of Jewish society in the Galician world:  “In that era, the leaders of the province of Galicia were adopting a more liberal outlook.  Jews were granted full rights as citizens and they were allowed to vote as well as to be elected to the Galician Landtag and the Austrian Reichsrat.” (p. 18) The battle between the two groups became therefore also a battle for political representation of the Jewish citizens in the secular governments, not just a battle over religious practice and education.

In order for Machzikei Hadas to function as a legitimate association and publish newsletters legally, it had to obtain state permission.  The Shomer Yisrael Society engaged in political maneuvering to prevent this, but ultimately Machzikei Hadas was able to obtain approval and publish a newspaper after some political maneuvering of its own. Their ultimate coup was in 1879 when they were able to elect the Krakow Rabbi, a Hasid, to the Austrian Reichsrat, the first rabbi to be elected to such a position. As Margoshes wrote, “The election of the Krakow Rabbi to the Austrian Reichsrat made a tremendous impression on the entire Jewish world, and Galician Jews anticipated salvation.  It gave them enormous pleasure to see even a single Rabbi achieve the major honor of sitting among so many great personages.” (p. 24)

As I read these pages, it raised several questions and thoughts for me.  First, I was struck by the fact that Jews even then (and before then) fought among themselves over issues of observance versus assimilation, rather than trying to unite against the non-Jewish majority who controlled the laws and the government.  I thought of that old joke about the Jew found after being stranded on a deserted island for several years.  His rescuers noticed he had built two structures and asked him what they were.  His response:  “This one is my shul, and that is the “other” shul.”  We always need some group of other Jews with whom to disagree and debate, don’t we?

Second, I was surprised by the fact that at least at that time, Jews were not necessarily poor or poorly treated by the Austrian people or government.  Perhaps more will be revealed as I read further, or perhaps Margoshes’ family were more elite and comfortable than most others.

Finally, his description of the various segments of the Jewish society made me wonder where on the spectrum our great-grandparents lived.  Were they Hasidic, maskilim, or “German” in the way they lived their lives? Were they educated in worldly matters? Did Joseph wear payes and a streimel or did he dress in modern clothes? My guess is that they were not Hasidic, not even very observant, but only because I know that my grandmother was not religious (though she did have a kosher home), but I really don’t know.  She was born here, and perhaps Joseph and Bessie changed and assimilated once they settled in America.

To be continued, as I continue to read….